Young people in America today are getting type 2 diabetes much younger than their parents ever did. The media is ringing its collective hands over concern that this terrible trend will continue.
Even the good, gray New York Times is worried. “Obesity and the form of diabetes linked to it are taking an even worse toll on America’s youths than medical experts had realized,” Denise Grady, a Times science reporter, wrote earlier this year. In the 1990s doctors began to notice an “alarming increase” in type 2 diabetes among children, especially among those from poorer families.
When I began to write about diabetes in the mid-1990s we had a good reason for calling what we now call type 2 diabetes “adult-onset diabetes.” When a doctor told me in 1994 that I had it, I was 59, which was then the typical age of diagnosis. Now even children as young as 5 get type 2.
The big concern is whether this trend will continue. It won’t.
What we have going for us as a society is the natural tendency of children to rebel against their parents. This fact of life is something that adults have despaired of for generations.
But as they grow up to become young adults, our children have a natural need to develop an identity separate from that of their parents and family. This teenage rebellion means that they may experiment with different roles, behaviors, and ideologies.
I remember well that, like most of us, I was a rebellious child. I was a rebel without a cause, like James Dean in the 1955 movie of that name.
I realize now that I was blessed with a wonderful mother and father, but when I was about 12 I ran away from home on my bicycle. The first night out, however, when I was about 30 miles from home, I was so cold that I meekly turned around and went back to face the music. Which was surprisingly mellow.
Aside from being a child myself many years ago I am no expert on children. I have avoided both the joys and pain of having any of my own.
I’m sure that mine is a minority position. Certainly the expert on children with diabetes doesn’t share my optimism that a turnaround in childhood diabetes is imminent. He is Jeff Hitchcock, the creator, editor, and webmaster of Children with Diabetes as well as being a friend and colleague in the war on diabetes for almost two decades.
“I don’t know the science to be able to give you an assessment,” Jeff told me when I called him today. “Certainly kids do rebel against their parents.”
But he says that what he sees is tied to more than just the relationship between children and their parents. Many of them live in lifestyles conducive to obesity, a big risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
“So I don’t know that just the historical teenage rebellion against parents is something that kids can fight,” Jeff continued. “If they get heavy at 5 or 6, they certainly can rebel against their parents, but they can’t change their food situation at that age. I for one would not be optimistic that just the teenage rebellion will do much to stave off the explosion of obesity and type 2 in kids.”
But I do know that no trend continues indefinitely, as much as the media likes to scare us into thinking that it will. Countervailing forces always go to work. Our children will certainly not follow in our footsteps in some ways, hopefully not in the way that most adult Americans eat.
They will naturally take the road less traveled. And as Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem, it will make all the difference.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.
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